Cellphone providers give learners free Wikipedia

"Before I had free Wikipedia on my phone I had to walk far to get to the public library here in Joe Slovo Park to get things to help me with my homework," grade 11 Sinenjongo High School pupil Olivia Nopoto told the Mail & Guardian.

At the end of last year, a group of grade 12 pupils at the school wrote a letter to all of South Africa's cellular network providers asking them to allow users to access Wikipedia for free on their cell phones, to help them with their school work.

At the beginning of this year MTN agreed.

"It's been great actually," Nopoto said. "It helps us with our homework and saves us walking far."

"I'd like to tell the pupils that wrote that letter [that] they not only helped us but they helped the whole country. It's amazing that kids like us who live in a township can actually do something that great for South Africa," she said.

Samantha Jaca, another grade 11 pupil said being able to access Wikipedia for free on her cellphone "saved me money on data".

"It's very useful … Normally if I was looking for stuff on the internet I would go onto Google first and do a search there but it would give me a lot of stuff that I don't need … Now I don't have to load Google, I just load Wikipedia."​

In the past, when she didn't have money to buy internet data, she had to go to the public library, she said.

MTN users now also have free access to MoMaths – a mobile mathematics platform, created by Nokia, which offers maths tuition to South African pupils. Pupils can access to 10 000 maths exercises of varying difficulty and guidance on how to do them. Cell C also offers MoMaths to its users for free.

Piet Streicher, a volunteer information technology teacher at the school, said he encouraged the pupils to send the letter after he saw an article on the internet describing Kenya and Uganda's free access to Wikipedia by their cellular network providers.

"I encouraged them to write the letter and they wrote it by themselves," he said.

"The story got some attention on IT sites but not much."

This changed when the Wikimedia Foundation (which owns Wikipedia), based in San Francisco in the US, heard about the letter and sent a film crew to film the pupils reading the letter.

"It was an amazing thing for the pupils. They could not believe that people from another country had come to do this," Streicher said. After that, local media "picked up on it in nicely", he said.

"What I realised is that most pupils have cell phones but because they live in townships or come from disadvantaged backgrounds a lot of them don't have books at home or easy access to libraries. Wikipedia is so useful to them."

Brian Gouldie, chief marketing officer at MTN South Africa, said in a press statement in February that "given the pervasiveness of mobile phones in the country, it only makes sense for us to allow for a free access to this much needed resource".

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